High Desert Journal: Witness to the West

HDJ 3Just over ten years ago, back home for a holiday, I told my grandmother, an elderly widow living alone out on the plains of eastern Montana, that I planned to quit my good, exhausting job as a high school teacher and go back to grad school to get my MFA in poetry. My grandmother turned from the stove with a wooden spoon in her hand. She backed me up into the corner of kitchen, was all but whacking me in the chest. “Joe,” she said, spoon shivering in her fist, “thinking you can make a living as a writer is a temptation of the devil!”

Six months later, sitting at a conference table and staring at the small, pitiful poem in front of me, the poem that like all the rest had just been torn to metaphorical pieces in my first graduate workshop, I began to think it wasn’t making a living as a writer, but simply making it as a writer that was the true and fiendish temptation. In fact, if it had just been the writing, I would have left after that first, hard semester. But there was the reading, too. My literary education up to that point had been scattershot at best, but now—especially when it came to the literature of the American West—things were starting to come together. I read Kittredge for the first time that year, as well as B.H. Fairchild, Gretel Ehrlich, Mark Spragg, James Galvin, Dorianne Laux—and I dove into the work of my professors, too: Mary Clearman Blew, Kim Barnes, and Robert Wrigley. This, I remember thinking, is something my grandmother—who had books crammed into every nook and cranny of her house, who, when she gifted me her copy of the Montana anthology The Last Best Place, handed it to me as if the family Bible—would understand.

I discovered High Desert Journal that first year of graduate school as well. Here was a magazine after my own windburnt, high-plains heart: the first two issues featured, among other Western eminences, David James Duncan, Kathleen Dean Moore, Gary Snyder, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Kittredge, John Daniel, Kim Barnes, Robert Wrigley, Tami Haaland, Craig Lesley, and Kim Stafford. That spring, I wrote a story in a class with Mary Clearman Blew, “Far Enough: A Western in Fragments,” and I crossed my fingers and sent it off to High Desert Journal. They picked it up. It was my first prose publication ever, and the vote of confidence I needed to keep at it. I remember holding the issue, staring at the rust-red border, the black-and-white photo of a yucca beneath all the names—and there I was: next to Teresa Jordan and Paulann Petersen and Amy Irvine and Nance Van Winckel. I couldn’t hardly believe it.

For ten years now, High Desert Journal has been doing just this, publishing the luminaries of the West alongside the next generation of writers speaking from and about the American interior. As the nonfiction editor at HDJ, I’m pleased to be continuing this tradition, as well as searching for stories of the new and changing West. I’m hoping to find writing my grandmother would appreciate; writing that backs you up and makes you pay attention, writing that’s willing to say it like it is.

And I’m hoping you’ll join me by subscribing, here on our tenth anniversary, to High Desert Journal. In recent and forthcoming issues, you’ll find essays by Pam Houston and Kate Lebo, David Axelrod and Melissa Mylchreest, Shann Ray and Jon Rovner, Craig Childs and Sean Prentiss, Jill Talbot and Annie Lampman. You’ll find writing that will change the way you see and know the American West. Don’t miss out. Subscribe now.

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